For some of those considering the move to self-employment, the potential for isolation has been a fear. Leaving the comforts of the traditional workplace isn't easy; it means losing contacts and friends in the office. Freelancers now have tools like LinkedIn to help them preserve their network, and Twitter to feed them quick updates on what people in the industry are up to. There are communities like the Behance Network, where creative pros can post their work to get feedback and recognition. Though social networks aren't exactly a substitute for the interactions the traditional workplace provides, they are more robust than they used to be and act as a social lifeline for the self-employed.
When virtual community is not enough, freelancers can meetup at Barcamp or Jelly events, or join the co-working movement, where they can share a collaborative workspace (like Conjunctured in Austin) with others while maintaining their independence.
When talent leaves the established brand of the agency behind, they must create their own, and it can be tough to build a solid reputation from scratch. With publishing now accessible to the masses, free agents have plenty of opportunity to create content and show their smarts by starting a blog or a podcast. These tools are leveling the playing field and helping independents build business.
Consider the story of Bob Knorpp, a seasoned pro who left the agency world to be a consultant. He hosts a weekly podcast about the industry called The BeanCast and has built a social network to bring together fans of his show. The podcast is a way of establishing credibility for his brand and creating content to showcase his thinking. It's helped to humanize his web presence and generate leads. Knorpp says, "I figure, you can tell people what you can do, or you can show them."
Tools that connect freelancers with prospective clients are exploding on the web. Beyond traditional methods, freelancers can now look for new projects on sites like Elance, Crowdspring and Idea Bounty. These sites cater to different types of independent professionals, but they all carry a common theme: Anyone can log on and find a client's problem, compete with others to pitch the best idea and collect the payout. Clients get to crowdsource their briefs and set a firm budget, and freelancers get more projects to work on. Even if they don't bring home "the bounty," it's valuable practice that can help creatives keep their skills fresh and build a body of work. Small businesses have embraced using these platforms for collateral work, and now even BBH Labs is experimenting with the concept by crowdsourcing their logo.
These platforms are not without controversy. There was a heated debate at SXSW Interactive about whether crowdsourcing commoditizes design that became one of the most talked about panels at the event.
Freelancers can't do it on their own. Eventually, bandwidth gets maxed out and they have to call in reinforcements. Most of the platforms we're seeing so far are project-management tools that enable disparate parties to keep track of the tasks, timelines, and people involved for a given project. Action Method Online, Basecamp and Tempo are all competing to create the killer app for coordinating work in loose, virtual networks. There's also Blellow, which helps freelancers exchange knowledge in real time.
The implications of the current exodus of talent from agencies have yet to be seen, but if the shift toward self-employment enabled by a surplus of talent and new technologies doesn't shake things up in this industry, I don't know what will.